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One of Canada’s greatest voices has been silenced

Michael TaubeRex Murphy was one of the most impressive columnists, commentators and broadcasters this country has ever produced. He wrote and spoke at a high level but was always able to communicate his message to Canadians from all walks of life.

He was a true gadfly of the Great White North, if ever there was one.

Alas, one of Canada’s greatest voices has been silenced forevermore. Murphy passed away on May 9 after a valiant battle against the scourge of cancer. He was 77 years old.

Born in Carbonear, Newfoundland in 1947, he was the second-oldest of five children. His entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia states, “His father worked as a cook at the U.S. military base in Argentia and had no more than a third-grade education.”

Rex Murphy

Rex Murphy

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Nevertheless, there appears to have been a focus on education and learning at his home. “Murphy learned an appreciation of wordplay around the dinner table,” according to Sarah Barmak’s original piece (and updated by Andrew McIntosh), and “skipped two grades in elementary school, graduated from high school at age 15 and earned a BA in English from Memorial University at 19.”

He later attended Britain’s Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and studied law for a year. He returned to Newfoundland and started a master’s degree in English at Memorial University but never completed it.

Regardless, it was clear early on that his intelligence, knowledge, oratorical skills, and puckish sense of humour would take him far in life.

He worked at VOCM Radio in St. John’s and moved on to political commentary and interviews on CBC TV’s Here and Now and the satirical Up Canada! He was also a freelance presenter and commentator for three additional CBC programs, The Journal, Midday and Sunday Report.

Rex Murphy would become a household name when he assumed the hosting duties of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup in 1994. This long-running phone-in talk radio show began in 1965 and reached new heights with Murphy at the helm. The audience reportedly reached over 100,000 listeners each week. That’s no mean feat in this country, to be sure. His formula for success? He brought in Canadians from coast to coast on a wide range of popular topics. His pleasant, easy-going demeanour made each and every caller feel their views were important and valuable to the public debate.

He also started his popular Point of View segment for CBC’s The National. This was the gadfly at his best – intelligent, humourous, satirical, whimsical, acerbic and honest to a fault. He wasn’t a political commentator who minced his words to protect people and institutions. He didn’t allow the elites in society to go unscathed, either. In many ways, he was both a populist and intellectual man of the people.

Murphy was also a superb wordsmith. His columns for the Globe and Mail and National Post gave him the freedom to praise, critique, suggest, and challenge everything from authority to what he perceived as authoritarianism. He was a natural storyteller at heart and had a wit and charm that few in Canada have ever possessed on the level that he had.

Take his last column for the Post. He astutely blasted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for having failed a clear moral test after Hamas’s Oct. 7, 2023 attack on Israel. One line in particular really struck me for its brilliance: “Hamas is in a squalid tradition; there’s a lot of Himmler in Hamas.” I wish I had thought of writing something like this. Many of us often did.

Alas, some columnists and commentators were critical of Rex Murphy in his final years. They suggested he had become too partisan and ideological. That he regularly wore his politics on his sleeve. That he had changed.

Murphy’s writing and speaking style evolved, as did his politics. While it obviously didn’t bother Canadian conservatives like me, it got under the skin of many progressives.

Politics was an essential part of his life and career. He won the federal PC nomination for St. John’s in 1978 but ran out of money and was forced to drop out. He also worked as a special assistant for then-Newfoundland PC Premier Frank Moores. In the 1980s, he left the PCs for the Liberals and became the provincial party’s chief researcher. He ran twice for the Newfoundland Liberals in 1985 and 1986, coming within 142 votes of being elected in the former attempt.

What changed? Quite a number of things. In particular, his frustration with what Canada was becoming – and had become. At times, he didn’t recognize his beloved country and spoke out against “environmentalists, liberal politicians and what he called their ‘woke politics,’” as a May 18 New York Times obituary noted.

While I didn’t know Rex Murphy very well (we only met a couple of times), I’m glad he did this. Millions of Canadians felt the same way.

Carson Jerema, the National Post’s comment editor, captured Murphy’s mass appeal better than just about anyone else. “He spoke for a Canada that existed outside of your typical downtown, a Canada that was not beholden to the latest, pointless meltdown on Twitter. He spoke for a Canada where who you are as an individual matters above all.”

Well said, indeed.

Rest in peace, Rex.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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